Landlord Duties to the Tenant

Landlords in the United States have a myriad of legal responsibilities to tenants. Failure fulfill these responsibilities can lead to fines, penalties and civil action by both state and private entities. Beyond conveyance of the lease, there are three basic duties of the landlord to the tenant:

Duty to Deliver Possession

The fundamental duty inherent in any leasehold is the landlord’s duty to deliver possession of the property to the tenant. The rule in most jurisdictions is that the landlord must not only transfer legal right to possess the property but actually deliver possession of the property to the tenant. In other words, the property must be ready for the tenant to occupy at the beginning of the lease.

In the case of a wrongful holdover, where a former tenant does not give up possession of the lease after the lease term has ended, the burden is on the landlord. In most jurisdictions, if the landlord does not deliver posession of the property, as per the lease terms, the tenant can do one of two things: (1) void the lease and collect any damages suffered as the result of the landlord’s failure to deliver possession or (2) uphold the lease and withold rent for the time the property was unavailable.

When the tenant is only denied partial possession of the property, the tenant’s sole remedy in most jurisdictions is to deduct from rent payments the amount of rent proportionate to the amount of the possession of the property that was denied to the tenant.

Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment

Basic to all leases is the covenant of quiet enjoyment. While most leases do not expressly include a “Quiet Enjoyment” clause, it is implied even when not written into a lease. The covenant of quiet enjoyment ensures that a tenant’s possession of the leasehold will not be disturbed by someone with a superior legal title to the property—specifically the landlord. If the landlord, manager, or owner’s agent violates the covenant of quiet enjoyment, technically the tenant can be relieved for his or her obligation to pay rent. If violation of quiet enjoyment occurs repeatedly so that the tenant cannot enjoy the property, a tenant may have legal grounds to terminate the lease.

There are three ways in which a landlord can breach the covenant of quiet enjoyment:

  • Actual Eviction: Here the tenant is physically removed from the premises. When the landlord wrongfully evicts the tenant by throwing or locking the tenant out, the landlord is liable for damages.
  • Actual Partial Eviction: When the tenant is evicted from any part of the premises, an actual partial eviction has occurred and the rent obligation to the landlord stops entirely until the tenant is permitted to repossess the entire property.
  • Constructive Eviction: A tenant is considered “constructively” evicted if the landlord substantially interferes with the tenant’s ability to use and enjoy the leased property. This may occur for a number of reason including the landlord’s failure to provide adequate heating, a functioning elevator where necessary, or access to life-sustaining utilities or services.

A breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment can also occur when a landlord fails proactively ensure that a tenant’s ability to enjoy the property is not compromised. If a tenant is unable to sleep because the tenant next door continues to play loud music late into the night, and the landlord fails to adequately resolve the issue, then the tenant’s right to quiet enjoyment have been breached and he or she has the right to recover compensation from the landlord for damages.

Duty to Provide Habitable Premises

The Implied Warranty of Habitability requires that a rental property be habitable at the time of occupancy and throughout the tenancy. In other words, the landlord is resonsible for making sure the unit remains in good living condition. In most jurisdictions, the Implied Warranty of Habitability is inferred even when it is not expressed in the lease. When the implied warranty of liability is breached, the tenant has several legal remedies:

  • The tenant can vacate the property and terminate the lease.
  • The tenant can repair the property to make it habitable and deduct costs of repair from the rent.
  • The tenant can reduce or withhold rent until a court determines a fair reduction of rent due to account for the inhabitable condition of the property.
  • The tenant can remain in the property and sue the landlord for monetary damages caused by breach of the implied warranty of habitability.

Neither the landlord nor the tenant can waive the implied warranty of habitability. Any lease clause waiving, negating or invalidating the implied warranty of habitability is not usually enforceable in a court of law.

The following are basic steps to follow to ensure your property meets implied warrant of habitability requirements.

  • Comply with all state and local health and building codes.
  • Ensure access to basic utilities including heating, electricity, and hot and cold water.
  • Make requested repairs in a timely fashion.
  • Keep all structural components of the property in good repair.
  • Make sure the property and premises are free from identifiable hazards.
  • Maintain the property structure and premises free of pests.
  • Inspect the property regularly or as required by local statute.

Right to Sublet, Share and Assign

Even when the lease forbids it, in most states landlords are legally required to allow tenants to sublet, share and assign their rental premises. Sublet means the tenant has the right to lease the rental premises to a third party while the tenant is temporarily gone. Sharing means the tenant is taking a third party in as an additional tenant while still maintaining possession of the premises. Assignment means the tenant is permanently leaving the premise and assigning the lease and the premise to a third party for the duration of the lease term. To sublet, a tenant must follow specific procedures as set forth by state law.

Other duties of the Landlord

The following duties serve to create a blueprint for the additional interactions, rights and obligations of the landlord to the tenant.

  • Provide tenant 30-day written notice of non-renewal of rental agreement.
  • Provide tenant notice of name and address of property owner.
  • Exercise “due diligence” and “due care”. Landlords must stay abreast of defects, issues or other findings and resolve all issues in a timely and appropriate manner.
  • Ensure effective weatherproofing of roof and exterior walls.
  • Comply with federal and state anti-discrimination and fair housing laws.
  • Follow state rent rules.
  • Meet state security deposit limits and return rules.
  • Prepare tenant a legal written lease or rental agreement.
  • Make legally require disclosures (ie. mold, lead-based paint, utility obligations, etc.)
  • Do not request renewal of lease prior to 90 days before lease expiration date.
  • Respect tenants’ privacy and provide 24-hour advance notice of entry.
  • Entry without notice is only legal in cases of emergency.
  • Follow exact procedures for terminating tenancy or evicting a tenant.
  • Provide notification in writing of any transfer in ownership of the property.
  • Make sure all commons areas remain safe and clean.

Because landlord-tenant disputes are primarily governed by state law, you should always make sure you’re familiar with the specific landlord-tenant laws for your jurisdiction.

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